The Borough of Colchester

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A History of the County of Essex: Volume 9, the Borough of Colchester. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1994.

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Colchester lies on the river Colne, at the upper limit of navigation and the lowest crossing-point of the river, a position which attracted settlement from the late Iron Age. The stronghold of Cunobelin was succeeded by the Roman colonia whose walls were re-used by the Anglo-Saxon burh and the medieval town. Through its port at the Hythe the town was able to carry on both coastal and overseas trade, and its position on the road from London to East Anglia and the main east coast ports provided good inland communications. Colchester lies at the centre of a rich agricultural area, and much of its early prosperity and importance was as a market for agricultural produce. By the late 12th century, however, the town had started to specialize in textiles, and the arrival c. 1570 of Dutch refugee bay- and say-makers gave new impetus to the trade, which continued until the mid 18th century. By the 17th century Colchester was also known for its oysters. The town was slow to industrialize, but became a centre of engineering in the later 19th century. In the 20th century it has become a retail and tourist centre.

Although it was the oldest town in Essex, and until the 20th century the largest, its position in the north-east corner of the county robbed Colchester of most administrative functions. Colchester castle was the seat of the sheriff in the Middle Ages, but Chelmsford became the county town, and when Essex was given its own bishop in 1914 the see was established there. Colchester, however, was chosen as the site of Essex University in 1962.

In the late 20th century Colchester prided itself on being the oldest recorded town in Britain, the name Camulodunum having been used by the early 3rdcentury writer Dio Cassius in his account of the Emperor Claudius's conquests in 43 A.D. (fn. 1) The identity of Colchester with Camulodunum was finally established only in the 19th century, (fn. 2) and the association with Shakespeare's Cymbeline (Cunobelin) was not exploited. In the Middle Ages the town was known for the legend of King Coel and his daughter St. Helen, but more recently the identity of the Colchester king with the Old King Cole of the nursery rhyme has been questioned. (fn. 3) There appears to be no evidence to support the suggestion, popularized c. 1980, that another nursery rhyme, Humpty Dumpty, derives from the destruction of a cannon at the siege of Colchester in 1648. (fn. 4) Daniel Defoe leased an estate in Mile End from 1722, and set the first part of Moll Flanders in Colchester. (fn. 5)

The extent of the borough remained virtually unchanged, covering c. 11,333 a., from the 14th century or earlier until 1974, apart from minor adjustments made in 1931. (fn. 6) The built-up area of the town has remained within those boundaries, except for some 20th-century housing and commercial building on the eastern edge of Stanway parish. (fn. 7) The following account deals with the area of the ancient borough, including its outlying parishes of Berechurch or West Donyland, Greenstead, Lexden, and Mile End, and takes no account of the large area brought into the borough in 1974.


  • 1. P.N. Essex, 367.
  • 2. Morant, Colch. 12-17; Camden, Britannia (1806), ii. 122-3; B.L. Add. MS. 33659, ff. 65-89.
  • 3. Oxf. Dict. Nursery Rhymes, 134-5; below, Med. Colch. (Intro.).
  • 4. Colch. Express, 1 Dec. 1972; E.C.S. 7, 14 Jan. 1983.
  • 5. D. Defoe, Moll Flanders; below, Outlying Parts (Mile End, Manors).
  • 6. Census, 1901, 1931.
  • 7. Below,